The Last of the Mohicans | Study Guide

James Fenimore Cooper

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The Last of the Mohicans | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

The narrator describes the setting of the novel. The story takes place in 1757 during the French and Indian War in North America. The narrator describes New York's frontier, where French and English forces, aided by their respective Native American allies, battle for control. Most of the battles during the war take place in the wilderness "between the head waters of the Hudson and the adjacent lakes." The ongoing fighting frightens the settlers who live here.

At the outset of the novel, a Native American scout arrives at Fort Edward. It is commanded by General Webb and boasts an army of more than 5,000 soldiers. The scout relays the news that the French general Montcalm is moving south with a large army in order to take Fort William Henry from the English. The scout also relays an urgent request from Colonel Munro, commander of Fort William Henry, for additional troops.

A regiment of 1,500 soldiers leaves Fort Edward and begins the march to Fort William Henry. After the soldiers march into the wilderness, a small group of unnamed characters prepares to depart as well. Two young women, a military officer, and their Native American scout begin a dangerous journey. On their scout's advice, they take a route that differs from the one taken by the regiment of British soldiers.

Analysis

In the first chapter, the narrator establishes the setting of the novel, which takes place during the French and Indian War in 1757 in what will later become New York State. Throughout the novel, the narrator describes both the beauty and "the toils and dangers" of the landscape as the characters make their way through the wilderness. Chapter I introduces the theme of man in the wilderness that appears through the novel.

Since this novel is characterized as a historical romance, the details related to time and place are key to the plot. The narrator's explanation of the war between the English and French and their Native American allies helps establish another of the major themes. The war is a metaphor for the struggle for control between two cultures—Native American and European. The brutality of the French and Indian War also serves as a contrast to the romantic elements of the novel. The interplay between romance and warfare heightens the dramatic effect.

The first chapter begins with an epigraph or short quotation from one of William Shakespeare's history plays, Richard II. The rest of the chapters in the novel begin with similar epigraphs from Shakespeare or from other literary works. These epigraphs set the tone for each chapter, help unify the work, and foreshadow plot events; they also signal that The Last of the Mohicans is a serious work of fiction with universal themes. Critics did not take American literature seriously at the time, so the epigraphs helped establish the novel's credibility and worthiness.

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